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Tears of My Mother
The Legacy of My Nigerian Upbringing
Table of Contents
About The Book
When star of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Potomac Dr. Wendy Osefo was growing up, her mother was her everything. But when she became a mother herself, everything changed. In this “exquisitely-drawn portrait of the intense bond that only a mother can have with a daughter” (Katie Haufner, author of Mother Daughter Me), Wendy explores how her Nigerian upbringing has affected her life, her success, and her role as a parent.
Wendy Osefo’s mother, Iyom Susan Okuzu, arrived in the United States from Nigeria with two things: a single suitcase and the fierce determination to make a better life for herself and her future family. And she succeeded: starting out working in a fast-food restaurant and ultimately becoming the director of nursing at a major metropolitan hospital.
While Susan may have taken pride in triumphing over every financial and emotional challenge, in Nigerian culture, a parent is only as successful as his or her children. And so her daughter, with gratitude and appreciation for her mother’s sacrifices, worked hard to meet every demand Susan made of her. With four advanced degrees and a position at Johns Hopkins University as a professor—as well as being a highly sought-after political commentator, a cherished wife, and a loving mother of three—Dr. Wendy has given her mother bragging rights for life. But at what cost to herself?
In Tears of My Mother, the star of The Real Housewives of Potomac describes growing up as a first-generation American, balancing two distinct cultures. And she takes a critical look at the paradox of her mother’s parenting: approval conditioned by achievement. As a teenager, Wendy struggled to carve out her own identity while still walking the narrow path of her mother’s expectations. Unwavering family loyalty and obedience gave Wendy the road map to making it in America, but it also drove a wedge between mother and daughter, never more so than when she began to build her own family.
“A love letter to Dr. Osefo’s mother and first-generation immigrants all across America” (Library Journal), this book is for anyone who has faced conflict in the mother-daughter relationship or wondered how much of their own upbringing they want to pass on to the next generation.
When I was three, my mother shook me awake in the middle of the night.
“Get up, Wen,” she said. “We have to go.”
My sister, Yvo, then six, was standing next to Mom at the foot of my bed. We were in a house at my maternal grandfather’s compound in Nigeria. Two weeks prior, we had fled my father’s home in Imo State to take refuge at my grandparents’ in Anambra State. Mom helped me out of bed, picked me up, and carried me out of the house. Like me, Yvo was wearing just her pajamas. Mom was dressed in her regular clothes, a long skirt and a long-sleeved blouse.
I’d never been awake that late before. Mom helped my sister and me into the back seat of the car. A man I didn’t recognize helped Mom load our six suitcases into the trunk. Mom slipped into the seat next to me, and the man got into the driver’s seat. “Let’s go,” she said.
“Where are we going?” I asked, confused.
“Close your eyes,” she said.
I dozed off in the car and woke up again in my mother’s arms in a white tunnel. Yvo held Mom’s hand and walked alongside us. The tunnel ended and we were ushered into a space I’d never seen before, with rows of cushioned seats and bright lights overhead. Mom found our row and buckled Yvo and me into our seats before she sat between us and fastened her own seat belt.
Overtired and excited to be inside an airplane for the first time, I cried when I was forbidden to run up and down the aisle. Eventually, I fell back to sleep and woke up the next morning in another new place, a new country. We were met at North Carolina’s Raleigh-Durham International Airport by a woman named Winifred, one of my mother’s sisters (she had four sisters, three of whom lived in and around Durham). I was too young to remember meeting my aunts before. Winifred drove us to a town house on Fargo Street. It looked just like all the other town houses on the block.
Mom said, “This is our new home, girls.” The house was, as I came to learn, owned by Aunt Ekwy, another of Mom’s sisters.
“Where’s Dad?” I asked once we were settled, fed, and dressed. The midmorning sun coming through the windows was bright.
“He’s fine. Don’t worry,” said Mom curtly.
“Is he coming here?” I asked.
“He’s coming,” she said. “He’ll be here soon.”
A lot was new to me in America: the relatives and friends who came in and out of the house on a steady basis to sit and talk to Mom; the humid climate; the people on the street and in stores who wore strange clothes and spoke with a weird accent. Many of the people were white, which was also a change from what I was used to.
Inside the house, it still felt like being in Nigeria. Mom cooked all our favorite dishes to give us a taste of home. And she spoke Igbo, the dialect of southeastern Nigeria, while she held court in the kitchen, entertaining and cooking for the stream of visitors. I’d never seen her like this before, so free and fun, the perfect hostess with a wooden spoon in one hand and a glass of wine in the other. I came to understand that most of the people who dropped by were our family members, aunts and cousins as well as some friends from the local Nigerian community. Listening to them talk, I soon realized that Mom had lived in Durham before I was born. Even though both my parents were Nigerian born, this was where they had been married in 1981. My sister, Yvo, had been born at Duke University Hospital later that year. Having been born in Nigeria, I was the only member of our immediate family who was totally new to this place—although Yvo’s memories of the first two years of her life in America were faint at best. I adapted quickly, as children do.
Thanks to Mom’s incredible cooking and open-door policy for guests, Fargo Street was like Grand Central Station. Back in Nigeria, our routine centered on home and the fundamentalist Christian church where my father, Edwin, was a pastor. Our lives before had been circumscribed, with few social gatherings. Now, in Durham, our house was alive with people, music, laughter. It was a place of joy.
For weeks, the newness distracted me from the mystery of why we were here in America at all. I missed my father, but I was okay. As long as my mother was to my left and my sister to my right, I felt secure. It didn’t matter where I was.
Over the course of a year, the three of us settled into life in Durham, and I got to know my aunts better. Mom worked odd jobs as a home-care worker and whatever else she could find. After several months, I stopped asking about my father, because Mom always said the same thing: “He’s coming. Soon.”
And then, out of the blue, Mom called to Yvo and me one random afternoon and said, “Girls! Your father is here.”
What? My sister and I ran toward the front door. There he stood, the man I had been starting to forget. I was overjoyed to see him after a year of absence, and dazzled by his huge afro, chocolate skin, electric smile, and soft, sweet cognac eyes. They were shining at me now, and I hugged him as tight as I could.
I glanced back at Mom to check how she felt about this, and I was relieved to see her beaming at him. “Your father is going to live with us from now on,” Mom informed us with no other explanation. Whatever made my mother flee with us in the dark of night a year ago had apparently been resolved. I was way too young to understand the emotional adjustments and negotiations that went on between my parents. I was just thrilled to have him back in the house. We moved out of Fargo Street, into a two-bedroom in the Lakewood apartment complex. Yvo and I had bunk beds and shared one room, while Mom and Dad had the other. Our furniture was utilitarian and basic.
At the time, Mom worked at an assisted-living facility and Dad got a job at the Budget car rental at the Raleigh-Durham International Airport. While they worked, we were watched over by family members. All I knew was that I was surrounded by love. Mom made the Lakewood apartment feel like home with decorative touches like fresh flowers by the window and a rainbow array of spice jars on the kitchen counter. Even if it was small, the apartment was always immaculate and smelled amazing. Every home my mother has lived in holds the same two aromas: the scent of her cooking and the fragrance of her perfume, a beautiful floral mixed with amber and vanilla. She has always worn this scent, which remains in my memory and my consciousness. Even the tiniest trace of it makes me think of her—as an adult I’ve walked into my sister’s house, detected a hint of vanilla, and asked, “Was Mom just here?”
My parents’ relationship during those years was the happiest I can remember. We were a family, and we needed each other. In that first year, my mom had to have abdominal surgery (for uterine fibroids, as I learned later). My father brought her home after the operation. As she walked into the house, she had one hand on her stomach, and one arm around my father’s neck. He helped her walk up the steps slowly, surely. As frightening as it was to see Mom in pain, the sight of my father’s comfort and support gave me a warm, secure feeling.
One memorable day, my father took me to work with him. He drove the Budget shuttle bus that picked people up at the different terminals. I sat in the shuttle bus one row back and diagonally across from him so I could see him (and he could see me). All day, I watched him greet people, help them on and off the shuttle. I was fascinated by the lever he pushed to open and close the door. You’d think a four-year-old would get bored sitting on a bus all day. Not me. I loved watching my father do his job. He was making people’s lives better, easing their stress. And they showed how much they appreciated him with a smile and warm thank-you. I was bursting with pride.
From what I saw, Mom and Dad were enjoying our life together, too. There was no apparent tension at all between them. But Edwin was increasingly unhappy about living in Durham. I overheard enough of their discussions to know that he wanted to leave and take us with him. Edwin had picked up certain ideas about the behavior of American girls. He thought they were wayward, got pregnant out of wedlock, and were sinful. He considered any woman who lived alone—not with a father or a husband—to be wild. That included Mom during her year without him, and possibly Yvonne and me when we got older, if we stayed in America.
Along with being a pastor, Edwin was a traditionalist: the husband made the decisions for the family and the wife obeyed. However, Mom was not a traditional Nigerian wife.
“God told me to go back to Nigeria, and God doesn’t want me to be separated from my wife and children,” Edwin told Susan.
“I will wait for a message from God to call me home to Nigeria,” she countered. “If that happens, I’ll go with you. If it doesn’t, we’re staying, with or without you.”
God did not deliver to Mom the same message he was giving my father, and she continued to defy him by refusing to leave. This only increased his demands that we all return to Nigeria.
My aunts came by as usual a few times a week to sit around the kitchen table and talk. Winifred, my mother’s oldest sister, told her, “You can go against your husband’s word or get a divorce, but people won’t like it.” By “people,” Winifred meant the local Nigerian community, our family, and friends. Culturally, divorce was just not an option. It dishonored both the families. For Nigerians, family honor was everything. Even if a married couple hated each other’s guts, they stuck it out or they’d be ostracized from the community.
“I don’t care what people say,” replied Susan, defiant.
“What kind of life will you have without a husband?” asked Winifred. “How will you support them on your own?”
“I’ll figure it out,” said Mom.
“You’re playing a dangerous game, Susan,” warned Winifred.
It wasn’t the first or last talk of certain doom between Mom and her sisters. Their concern was real, though. I even felt it as a little kid. On the line was Mom’s reputation and the respect of our social circle. Susan didn’t have any American friends. If she was rejected by the insular immigrant community, she would have no one except us. Also hanging in the balance was Yvo’s and my future. As a small child, I wasn’t told that if my father left, he would stop contributing financially to our family. Mom would be completely responsible for the cost of raising us.
One sunny, beautiful North Carolina day, I heard my parents arguing in their bedroom. My father yelled, “What are you going to do alone in America with two girls? Who’s going to want to be with you?”
Next, my father came into the living room where Yvo and I were playing, kissed us on the head, and said goodbye, like he did when he left for work, and left through the front door. Sensing something was off, I found Mom sitting on the edge of her bed, crying.
“What’s wrong, Mommy?” I asked, sitting on the floor at her feet. I’d never seen her cry before, and the sight was alarming.
“Dad is gone,” she said.
It didn’t seem real. I remember looking out the window to make sure it was still the same view of trees and sky or if the whole world had changed. The sun was still shining, but inside my head, it was dark and cloudy.
He’ll be back, I thought. He’d just shown up before. He could walk in the door at any second. “Is this real?” I asked.
“It’s real,” she said. “And he’s not coming back this time.”
Edwin returned to Nigeria for good the following year. His parting words—that Mom would be all alone in America—were a warning and a curse. That cruelty made it easier for her to let him go.
I wouldn’t see my father again for eight years.
Our father’s abrupt departure was a huge blow to Yvo, but perhaps not as much of a shock as it was for me. She was seven, old enough to pick up on undercurrents that I missed. Even if she knew that trouble was brewing, she felt as miserable about his abrupt departure as I did. One minute our father was with us, and the next he was gone. All I understood at four was that I’d lost someone I loved.
I noticed an immediate change in Mom after he’d left. She was sad for a while—had lower energy than usual, and I’d occasionally catch her crying—but eventually she seemed lighter, happier, more determined than ever to build a life in Durham. She started to wear makeup and get her nails done, things my conservative, religious father never would have allowed.
I overheard Mom tell Winifred, “I’m free. I can do whatever I want.” For her, sending my father away meant she could choose her own destiny, whether that meant wearing shorter skirts, pursuing a career, or making the decisions for her daughters.
My aunt’s warning that Mom would be ostracized by the Nigerian community never came to pass. Why would it? She was feeding them all, and our people are not going to turn down great cooking. When you’re an immigrant, you yearn for your community, your culture, and your traditions. Our constant guests were lured by the flavor of home, the conversation about the old days in the village, and news from back home.
Our Lakewood apartment became the gathering place for every celebration. Each Christmas, our house was packed with aunts, uncles (Mom had four brothers; three of whom eventually came to live in the Durham area), other families, and friends. Our table groaned under huge ceramic platters of rice, stews, okra soup, plantains, and assorted meats. I remember the press of bodies, my uncles’ leather jackets, the sound of wine bottles being uncorked and people laughing, the singing of Oliver De Coque and Nigerian highlife music, the wink of string lights, and the flash of gold chains. There was a buzz in the atmosphere and good vibes from being together.
In America, Mom bucked small traditions along with the big ones. For example, when she was growing up, the tradition was that her father, Albert, ate first and took the best parts of the meat. The next oldest would then choose his or her pieces, and so on down the line until the youngest child in the house was served. In a party situation, the eldest guests eat first. The kids are told to wait in the living room for their turn. Susan always felt like that order wasn’t right. So at all the holiday parties she hosted, and at every postchurch Sunday dinner, Mom flipped the script. “My kids eat first,” she said. “They deserve the best.” I felt privileged and special as I filled my plate before anyone else.
Mom put us first in every way. She chose our freedom over her marriage. Mom was different from the other mothers in the Nigerian community. They answered to their husbands. Mom answered to no one. I’ve never seen her cower to any man, which served her well. Mom was the queen, and no king would tell her what to do. She was certainly my queen. Mom didn’t bend for anyone. I’ve never seen her give in.
She might’ve become too independent. She loved her siblings, but she never changed her mind if they challenged her. Just the opposite. She’d dig in harder. A child needs to see adults love and support each other, as well as disagree, argue, compromise, and make up. A child learns to see the world from both parents’ different perspectives. For me, only one point of view mattered—my mother’s. (Thank God my husband is so patient with me, because, before I got married, I had no idea what compromise looked like.)
During my childhood, I didn’t see many examples of happy relationships around me. My aunts were single or in distant marriages. Culturally, Nigerian women typically marry older men for the financial stability, either by choice or because their parents make them. Marriage isn’t usually rooted in love; it’s a practical decision. Many of the Nigerian girls I knew growing up followed that pattern and married someone ten or more years older than they were. Mom and Edwin bucked convention by being the same age and marrying for love. But they were swept up in the romance of love, American style, the fairy tale of finding your Romeo, your Juliet. The fact that they still split up despite being in love chipped away at Mom’s idealism. Once that process began, it didn’t stop. She became a hardened realist. She never thought she’d be a single parent of two girls, but that’s what came to pass. I don’t begrudge Mom for doing what was right for her and what she thought was right for us: staying in America, even if she had to sacrifice her marriage to do it. I often reflect on how brave it was for her to go it alone. But I felt my father’s absence every single day.
It’s probably not too surprising that I ended up marrying a man who shares my father’s nickname and resembles him. My husband, Edward (Eddie), has my father’s deep chocolate skin and those rare cognac eyes. When people ask me, “What’s your favorite feature of Eddie’s?” I don’t have to think about it. Eddie’s eyes remind me of my dad’s, and he passed on those eyes to Karter and Kamrynn. It’s also possible their cognac eyes were passed down from my father, through me. It’s a very strange thing to see pieces of my father, a man who was not in my life, in my children. Stranger still, I love those pieces despite my conflicted feelings about the man.
When I watch my husband with Kamrynn, I feel nostalgic for an experience I’ve never had. Kam is a daddy’s girl. If I say no to her, she immediately goes running to Eddie. Eddie gathers her up and she puts her little arms around his neck. Love lights them up. In his arms, she stops crying (not that they were real tears; she just wanted his attention) and they smile at each other like a besotted pair. I watch her sit on his lap while he’s working on the computer, swinging her foot in her baby Nikes, as content as can be. Their mutual adoration melts my heart.
I wish I’d had that.
As glad as it makes me that they have such a sweet relationship, as grateful as I am to have found a good husband who is a devoted father, my envy runs right alongside those positive emotions, and often takes the lead. Must be nice to have a dad, I think. Or, as I observe them together, I say to Eddie, “Can’t relate.” We laugh at the joke, but it’s also my truth.
I believe in the phenomenon of the butterfly effect, the theory that a small action (a butterfly flapping its wings in North America) can cause a large impact far away and later on (a typhoon in Asia). My parents’ separation, and my mother’s decision to stay in America and raise us alone, changed the trajectory of my life. I missed growing up with a father, but who I am and what I am would never have been if Edwin stayed in the picture. Mom applied a lot of pressure on us throughout our lives. But that pressure would have been ten times worse—and far more limiting—under Edwin’s traditional, conservative authority.
I am myself because of my mother’s painful decision to let my father go. As hard as that was for all of us, the truth is, I’m grateful for it.
Although I’ve asked her many times, Mom hasn’t told me everything about her split with Edwin. “He was very strict,” she said. “He never would have let you have a career. You would have been married off as a teenager.”
That explanation was undoubtably true, but I knew there was more to the story than that. I wouldn’t see the full picture for years to come, but when I did, I was even more grateful that Mom made the choice she did, risking personal and social disaster for our freedom.
- Publisher: Gallery Books (May 23, 2023)
- Length: 288 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982194512
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Raves and Reviews
“Other first-generation immigrants may recognize some of their own struggles in this book and be able to see themselves in Wendy’s story. This memoir is a love letter to Dr. Osefo’s mother and first-generation immigrants all across America. Readers don’t have to be Real Housewives fans to enjoy this touching story of love, loss, and emotional growth.”
“An honest, often funny, sometimes shocking examination of mother-daughter relationships.”
“Raw, funny, and shockingly honest, a universal story about mothers and daughters, generational divides, and the need to break free from even those we love and admire most. This deeply moving story of a first generation Nigerian American is a lightning bolt—I fell in love with it immediately.”
—Amy Chua, Yale Law Professor and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations
“In Tears of My Mother, Dr. Wendy Osefo artfully captures the horrors that so many first-generation immigrants face in pursuit of that ‘perfect American dream.’ Not only does Osefo brilliantly document the struggle in a way that only a true researcher can, but she offers a clear path to success, without pulling any punches. Tears of My Mother is a sobering exploration of family that has the power to educate generations.”
—D. Watkins, HBO writer, New York Times bestselling author of The Beast Side and Black Boy Smile
“Osefo is a gifted storyteller, and she gives us this one with equal parts candor and heart. She's always careful to stay out of the way of the book's true star: her remarkable Nigerian-born mother, Susan, who flouted tradition while upholding it. Susan demonstrated her own brand of love, Nigerian style, while modeling success, American style. I've yet to read a more exquisitely-drawn portrait of the intense bond that only a mother can have with a daughter.”
—Katie Haufner, author of Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir
“A beautiful ode to a fierce Nigerian mother whose tremendous sacrifices and iron will is recognizable to many Americans raised by immigrants. I loved this story.”
—Omarosa Manigault Newman, New York Times bestselling author of Unhinged
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